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Lion's Roar: Pema Chödrön apologizes for dismissing allegation of sexual assault from young woman

Pema Chödrön apologizes for dismissing allegation of sexual assault from young woman

On Saturday, famed Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön released a statement responding to an allegation that she once dismissed a woman’s report that she was raped by a Shambhala Center director.

Chödrön is a Buddhist nun, best-selling author, and senior teacher in the Shambhala community. She is a member of Shambhala’s “Transition Task Force,” the temporary committee appointed to appoint a new Shambhala board after the previous board resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct by leaders in the community.

Buddhist Project Sunshine, a community initiative to bring awareness to sexualized violence in Shambhala, published the allegation against Chödrön in its “Phase 3 Report” in August.  According to the report, a woman reported to Chödrön that she had been raped by a Shambhala Center director and subsequently miscarried. She says that Chödrön told her that “I don’t believe you” and “If it’s true I suspect that you were into it.”

In the letter, Chödrön says she recently reached out to the woman and the two talked. “I began by apologizing for the things I had said and then asked if she had anything she wanted to say to me. It turned out she had many questions for me, and I tried to answer them as genuinely as I could… I was able to tell her that I feel very differently now; I believe what she told me and, going forward, I hope to be a better listener and not again say such insensitive and hurtful remarks to those who come to me for help.”

The letter describes a culture within Shambhala that gave rise to sexual misconduct in the community. Chödrön says that in the 1970s Shambhala was “characterized by a lot of drinking and a lot of sex,” and continued to have a “free love culture” into the 1990s. She says that when women complained about inappropriate behavior, the default response was an attitude of “What’s the big deal? … That’s just what he’s like.” “In other words,” she writes, “this sexual behavior was considered no problem.”

Chödrön does not address the recent allegations of sexual assault and clergy sexual misconduct by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche — the head of Shambhala — or other other leaders in the community.

The letter follows in full, beginning with an introduction by the Transition Task Force:

Recently, we requested Ani Pema Chödrön, as a member of the Transition Task Force, to write a letter to the Shambhala community. The request arose as a way to share the outcome of her communication with the woman who spoke of Ani Pema in the third Project Sunshine document.

But it evolved as a request to share with the community how Shambhala might effect long-lasting culture change around the embedded patterns of sexual abuse and abuse of power. We deeply appreciate Ani Pema’s beautiful, honest, and humble response and advice for us all.

The Transition Task Force

Dear Shambhala Community:

I would like to share some thoughts I have about the need for a deep and lasting change in the Shambhala culture regarding sexual abuse of power. These thoughts are prompted by the reports of the Sakyong’s sexual misconduct and by reports of harm caused by many others in the sangha.

Recently, someone outside our community asked me if I thought Shambhala had a loose sexual culture. It was such a non-aggressive and straightforward question that I answered without even thinking, “it sure does!” Then reflecting on this later, I had to admit that I had always thought of it this way.

I entered Vajradhatu (as we were then called) in the 1970s as a fairly new celibate nun who had been instructed by my teacher Chögyam Trungpa, to keep my vows impeccably but to not be too uptight. I think that it’s no exaggeration to say that at that time the community was famous for being wild … a group that was characterized by a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. I was not put off by this, and it did not seem to me to be a problem. It was the 70s and free love was practically a cultural norm.

After Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1987 and despite a huge community upheaval around the Vajra Regent’s sexual conduct a few years later, it seemed to me that this free love culture continued pretty much as before. Then slowly bit by bit some women got up the courage to complain about inappropriate (even creepy) advances from teachers at programs, or their meditation instructors, or others in positions of power. The problem however was that there really wasn’t anyone official to complain to.  Women would come to me or to Judith Simmer-Brown or Judy Lief or other sympathetic women, and we would try to help but found there was almost nothing we could do to address the behavior. There was not what you would call a cover-up but rather the whole situation where complaints were most often met in Shambhala with the attitude of “what’s the big deal?” or “oh that’s just what he’s like.” In other words, this sexual behavior was considered no problem. The culture of looseness was systemic. Sometimes there was sympathy but that was about it. The upshot was, as we are now finding, that this culture gave permission to various individuals to do some very harmful things to women of all ages. People, mostly women, were getting hurt. In response to this in 2002, the Care and Conduct Policy was created, and an International Panel convened, to deal with a situation that was finally being recognized as harmful to everyone involved, both accuser and accused. This was certainly a step forward. Yet currently some women are saying that when they reported sexual misconduct or abuse to the Panel, their stories were heard with real sympathy and concern but in their cases, there was no meaningful follow through, and limited consequences. The culture of looseness, although less pervasive, continued until the present when there is now an upsurge of pent-up reports of abuse in the organization that are pouring out. I feel we are indeed experiencing the ripening of some very old karma.

In my opinion, it is good news that this is all coming out and that the old culture is being shaken up. When things fall apart like this, there is the chance for positive change. That, of course, is our challenge; how to work with all that is coming to the surface in a way that is compassionate, courageous, and dharmic, and to not let politics outweigh kindness. As many people have written to me, now is our chance to work with this painful history, and with the people who have been harmed, in a way that truly manifests enlightened society — that truly honors the basic goodness of all concerned.

I had an experience recently that brought home to me the importance of openhearted communication in this forward going process.

In the third Project Sunshine, I was described as having said some very unskillful, unkind words to a young woman who confided in me that she had been raped and become pregnant by the director of her Shambhala Center. Through An Olive Branch, I was able to get the young woman’s permission to contact her, and then we were able to talk. This was a frightening experience for both of us. We were both too nervous to eat before the call, and we both prepared by sitting. When we actually began talking, however, it got easier. I began by apologizing for the things I had said and then asked if she had anything she wanted to say to me. It turned out she had many questions for me, and I tried to answer them as genuinely as I could. We talked for a long time, and ultimately the apology gave rise to a very insightful and honest conversation. In the end, we both said we felt good about the outcome of meeting one another like this, and I was able to tell her that I feel very differently now; I believe what she told me and, going forward, I hope to be a better listener and not again say such insensitive and hurtful remarks to those who come to me for help. She said that for her it was important that from now on, Shambhala manifest as an organization that she could feel really does care, and that a new Shambhala code of ethics has to be developed that supports people and gives them confidence that when harm is done there will be consequences. I feel, as she does, that consequences are very important.

I tell this story to point out the power of speaking openly with each other and apologizing whenever possible for any harm we’ve caused (intentionally or not). It also showed me the importance of honoring the other person’s view of what happened. In other words, it showed me the importance of not going on the defensive but really listening and trying to stand in the other person’s shoes. Usually they are hurting and could use our help in order to heal.

This morning I picked up a lojong card that read, “Correct all wrongs with one intention.”  That intention being, in Trungpa Rinpoche’s words, “to have a sense of gentleness toward others and a willingness to help others — always.” I guess that’s the main point — a willingness to think of others before ourselves and to communicate with each other in ways that bring us closer together rather than further polarize us. We won’t always get it right, but I say let’s have the courage to try.

May the Shambhala community come through this upheaval older but wiser, stronger and kinder, and may each and every one of us benefit from this chance for a fresh and possibly revolutionary new start.

Pema Chödrön